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Coalition Efforts Against ISIL

Special Briefing
Brett McGurk
Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL, Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL
Press Briefing Room
Washington, DC
November 20, 2015

MR KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody. Happy Friday to you. We've got a full house here; this is great.

QUESTION: That's right.

MR KIRBY: Well, I think you know we have a special guest briefer here today. And I'm not going to take too much time until we give him the podium, but the President's Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, Brett McGurk, is going to be giving you an update on coalition efforts against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria. And then he'll stick around and be able to take a few questions – not many. And then after that we'll – I'll get up here and we'll go through the regular daily briefing.

I know there are a lot of questions about what happened in Mali today. I'll be prepared on the back end of Brett's briefing to deal with that and to take those questions, and then whatever else is on your mind for today.

So with that, I'll turn it over to Mr. McGurk.

MR MCGURK: Thanks, John. So thanks for allowing me to take a few minutes here just to update you on what we're doing against ISIL. And I was with a lot of you in Vienna and then Antalya and then Paris. I spent an extra day in Paris. And a real theme, of course, coming out of those trips is not only our solidarity with the French, but our commitment across the entire globe – and you really felt this, I think, in Antalya – to accelerate our efforts against this barbaric terrorist organization. And what we are doing now, the steps we're taking have really been building for the last year.

If you go back to a year ago, the thought of our putting real pressure on the heartland of ISIL and its main connections between Raqqa and Mosul is something we wanted to do, but it wasn't possible to do that a year ago – taking back major ground and territory, of finding out about the financial networks, the economic structures, how they're actually financing themselves, and then trying to root that out. That wasn't possible about a year ago, even six months ago, but it's possible now.

So I think we have an opportunity now in the wake of Paris to really galvanize the entire coalition and intensify our pressure across the board. And I would put it in two ways. We want to – make no mistake – we're going to destroy this terrorist organization, and in two ways: We're going to suffocate the core, which is in Iraq and Syria; and we're going to suffocate the global networks. And the global networks is something that everybody's focused on now and rightfully so. And I've said this before: We've never really seen anything like this before – 30,000 foreign fighters, these jihadi fighters coming from 100 countries all around the world into Syria and Iraq. Depending on who's counting, there are different numbers from the '80s, but it's almost about double the number that went into Afghanistan in the '80s. Those guys came from just a handful of countries; this is 100 countries all around the world.

Myself and General Allen over the last year traveled to about 30 capitals and coalition capitals, including North Africa, Europe, Gulf states, Asia. And you heard a common theme of what's driving a lot of these young men and women to join this fight in Iraq and Syria, and it is this phony notion of the caliphate that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced in the summer of 2014. And his core driving philosophy, if you really read it, going all the way back to Zarqawi in 2004, is this expanding state that they claim to be trying to create, this war of flags of constant expansion.

So one of our core focus areas, therefore, in suffocating the core is shrinking that area. And that is happening.

So I wanted to go through – take about ten minutes, really, to go through what we're doing now. It's a combination of activities – economic, diplomatic, political, military – and talk about that, and then also what we're doing, of course, in the global – with the global networks.

But in suffocating the core – I think you have a general map there just to situate where you are. And you've heard a lot about this disparate pieces. But when we look at it every day, those of us working on this every day with our national security team and the White House and the Pentagon and Treasury Department, they all – it's all part of a coherent whole.

And if you go around a map and just go clockwise – there's been a lot of talk, of course – we were all just in Turkey – about this 98-kilometer area. It's the last area of the border that ISIL still controls with Turkey. It's on the top left of the map. There's a town called Mar'a. You hear about the Mar'a line. That is the extent of ISIL's westward advance. They have tried, now, for a number of months to move further west. We've worked very hard with the Turks diplomatically, extremely close cooperation with Turkey, and with groups that are on the ground to ensure that this is going to be the extent of ISIL's western advance, and now we're going to start pushing them back.

My colleagues in the Defense Department can talk in more detail about that. But of course, the Incirlik Air Base, we've significantly increased our presence with F-16s, with A-10s, and most recently with F-15s. And that came out of an agreement that we negotiated with the Turks now going back about three or four months ago. And we think that's going quite well.

So in our cooperation with Turkey, politically, diplomatically, talking to the Turks very closely about how we are going to coordinate to do this – their activities on the ground going on now with the fighters on the Mar'a line against ISIL, and also there are things we expect and hope the Turks will do on their side of the border to shut off this last stretch of territory to ISIL.

If you go to the east, what I would say is number two – it's very important as you see the Euphrates River bisects Syria, the entire eastern side of the Euphrates River, which a year or so ago was almost all entirely under ISIL, is now entirely inhospitable to ISIL. That, of course, started in the town of Kobani. At one point we were down to just a few blocks in Kobani and a few hundred of the fighters in Kobani defending the town. We made a decision about a year ago to help them, starting with an airdrop and then military support.

And they have expanded from there – very significant defeat to ISIL in which we then took away their main border entry point, which is on a map here of Tal Abyad. Tal Abyad was their hub; it was their economic hub; it was their – where they processed all their foreign fighters. It is no longer an area in which they can do anything. And this expansion of the fighters in this part of Syria continues. And if you go to the east of Syria in Hasakah, south of there, Al-Hawl -- and my colleagues in DOD have talked about this – and our role has been diplomatically trying to get these forces on the ground to work together. Cooperation with some of the Iraqi Kurds to make this all work has been very difficult. But over the last about 30 days, they've launched a series of operations against ISIL and has been quite successful taking that town of Al-Hawl and then pushing south.

And that has been synchronized – just keep going clockwise – with what's happening in Sinjar. Sinjar, again, took a lot of diplomatic activity, a lot of trips to northern Iraq, a lot of coordination with the Kurdish Peshmerga to help set up the conditions to do this. And that operation launched about two weeks ago, and the Kurdish Peshmerga retook the town of Sinjar.

Why that is important and why we have been focusing on it for so long is that the lifeline for Daesh, ISIL, in its core here between Raqqa and Mosul, the I-95 corridor, is a highway called Highway 47. And they've been able to traverse it only getting pressure on the air; they've not gotten pressure on the ground. Now, with the Kurdish Peshmerga retaking Sinjar, we have cut that main highway and simultaneous efforts that are ongoing in Syria will continue to constrict. This is part of the suffocation. We want to isolate them in Raqqa; we want to isolate them in Mosul; and then continue to strangle and increase the pressure, and that's going to continue.

If you just go further, there's Mosul. We have worked with the Iraqi Peshmerga diplomatically and with the Government of Iraq to set up in Makhmour a joint headquarters where planning the operation of Mosul. Make no mistake, that's going to take some time. But we are already now – there's a new governor in Nineveh Province and working with him to recruit local fighters and organize them to begin to put pressure, constrict, and suffocate, and that's something that will continue.

If you go south towards Baghdad and the Tigris River, it's important to remember in the summer of 2014 when ISIL was pouring down the Tigris River Valley, pressing on Baghdad. Now the dynamic is complete opposite. The Baiji oil refinery – something that I think historians will look at the fight for the Baiji oil refinery – and the Iraqis fought quite heroically there. We, of course, helped them. We were 14 months with air drops and military support, and Iraqi forces ultimately now have secured the Baiji refinery, secured Baiji. And that, we think, is really now the extent of ISIL's southern advance.

Go south to Baiji in Tikrit. Tikrit is very important because it's where everything came together – the economic, political, and diplomatic. Extremely difficult situation at first. In terms of the retaking of Tikrit, there were a lot of Shia militia groups involved in that operation in the beginning, and it didn't go particularly well. The Iraqi Government came to us and asked for help. We worked very closely with them diplomatically and politically to set the conditions in place to help them. They ultimately retook Tikrit. But since Tikrit has been retaken, what's most important – this of course is an iconic Sunni city. And working with the global coalition, with the United Nations, with the Government of Iraq, set up an international stabilization fund to help get refugees back into the city of Tikrit. And now about 75 percent of the population has returned to Tikrit. That's significant because in most areas here in Iraq and Syria the population is not returning to their homes. We have it actually working in Tikrit. It's far from perfect. It's hard every single day. Our embassy team is working every day with the UN and with the Government of Iraq, and we're learning lessons every day of how that went and what we can do better as we move on to other areas.

I'll just loop around because one of the other areas is, of course, Ramadi. Ramadi fell about 90 days ago in what was a significant setback to the overall campaign, something we've talked about in detail. We know what ISIL wanted to do when they took Ramadi. They wanted to sweep east down the Euphrates River and, again, pressure Baghdad, basically collapse the Iraqi Security Forces.

We made an immediate decision working with Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi Government. At his invitation, we sent some of our Special Forces units into Taqaddum Air Base to help the Iraqis regroup, reorganize, recruit local fighters, and begin to push back. They halted that ISIL advance entirely, and now they are moving on Ramadi. And my DOD colleagues can talk about that in more detail. But given what ISIL tried to do and given where they are now, that is now going the right away, although it's extremely, extremely difficult. Iraqi Security Forces in this operation to retake Ramadi have already suffered about 1200 casualties; about 200 dead. They are fighting, they're dying to retake their country, and that's something that we are very much going to help them do.

Two more points on this map before I get to the global network. Haditha, going up the Euphrates River Valley there – Haditha has been a focus for ISIL. They've poured everything they possibly could at it and they have failed. We have worked with the coalition at Al Asad Air Base – I've been out there now a number of times – ourselves, the Australians, the Danes. We are there not only working with Iraqi Security Forces but also working with local tribal fighters, and they have now gone from defensive maneuver operate – to actually expanding their presence and defeating ISIL and doing offensive operations. That's quite significant because we've had to work closely politically with the Iraqi Government and pull a number of measures together on the economic-humanitarian side and the military side, and I think Haditha is where a lot of that has come together.

The final point, just to finish this circle, is in al-Raqqa. Al-Raqqa is where we think their leaders are, where we think a lot of their planning cells exist, and we are going to do all we possibly can working with all the forces available and working politically, diplomatically, and across the economic line of effort, to isolate and entrap ISIL in al-Raqqa. So that's all I'll say about that now, but I think the fact that just last week going after Jihadi John, the fact that Junaid Hussain, we found them on the streets of Raqqa and were able to conduct a very precise target operation thanks to the great work that our colleagues do – and that's going to continue.

We've seen that as we continue to put pressure on ISIL, they make mistakes, they do stupid things, and we are going to really do all we can to intensify the pressure over these coming weeks.

Let me talk about outside the core and the networks. These are the foreign fighter flows, the foreign fighter networks. We've done a lot over the last year. When we started the coalition there wasn't as – there wasn't much focus on this at all, quite frankly. We passed a Chapter 7 resolution since that time. We've had about 44 countries that have passed new laws, 22 countries reinforcing legal frameworks. But most importantly, we've had about 34 countries now around the world – and it's quite significant – have arrested foreign fighters or broken up cells and networks.

And what we want to do now within the coalition – this started some time ago, but we really need to accelerate it – is it's one thing to break up a plot in one capital, in another capital; it's another thing to work across our law enforcement and intelligence communities, work within a coalition to share information and just collapse and shock the networks. And that's what we want to do. We need to work as a global community, as a global coalition to share information. As one capital breaks up a cell, as another capital breaks up a cell, we have to connect the dots and shock these networks and collapse them.

There's a role for every country in the coalition to play in this regard. There's a role particularly for Turkey to play, but there's also a role for what we call the source countries in which people are coming from capitals all around the world into Turkey and then into Syria.

Within the EU, they have had a debate for some time about what we call passenger-name registries in terms of passenger airplanes, and a debate between privacy versus security is something that they've been debating for some time. We obviously feel very strongly that we have to get those PNR implements – instruments in place. We know how to do this. We are very focused on the homeland. We know everybody coming in. We keep these records very carefully. Bureaus here in the State Department track this every single day. And it's something that we need our coalition partners to assist with, and we believe very strongly in their capitals to do the same. I know the EU is talking about this today in Brussels. I will be seeing their political director later today, and we feel very strongly that now is the time to move forward on some of these very important protections.

On top of this effort against ISIL is the ongoing conflict in Syria. And many of you were in Vienna, and of course, this is a primary focus of ours. And the – really the core element of that second Vienna communique is not only a timeline in which everybody has agreed upon, but getting all those critical countries in the room – the entire Permanent Five members of the Security Council, the Saudis, the Iranians, and everybody else. Those have been very intense conversations but I think overall very constructive conversations, and a key element in that communique is the concept of a ceasefire. Because there is broad recognition that we all need to focus on these terrorist groups and that the ongoing conflict between the regime and the opposition can sometimes get in the way of that. However, that conflict will not wind down unless we have a credible process for a political transition.

So there is some convergence of views. I think the process in Vienna has been constructive, and that is obviously – as we're focused on ISIL and suffocating the networks, we are focused very intensively on the diplomatic track because many of these things are linked.

That's a very broad-brush overview of what we're trying to do. But just make no mistake, and I just came from the White House. We're, of course, getting ready for the visit of President Hollande. We just saw him the other day in Paris. And we stand with them. We're going to help them. They are moving the Charles de Gaulle – it's there now – into the Eastern Mediterranean. It'll then be going into the Gulf. We're helping them with more intelligence sharing with the agreement we just signed with them. And we are going to work with them and with the entire coalition to suffocate these networks and to destroy this terrorist organization.

But finally, it's going to take time. There are just no shortcuts here. These guys, they grow – they grew out of the AQI, an enemy that we knew very well, but they are better in every respect. They're better manned. They're better funded. They're better resourced. They're better fighters. And of course, we are working with indigenous forces on the ground to do the fighting on the ground because we feel very strongly that that is the longer-term solution. But we are putting U.S. Special Forces on the ground into Syria, as the President has announced, to help enable those forces. We are putting U.S. Special Forces on the ground. Of course, we already have them in Iraq to help advise and assist and enable. And those are the types of things that we'll be looking to intensify over the coming weeks.

MR KIRBY: Let's start with a few questions here.

QUESTION: I'm okay.

MR KIRBY: Dave, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, you make a good case about shrinking the core ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq, but parallel to that in recent months we've seen that they are able to carry out attacks in continental Europe. They appear to have planted a bomb on a Russian plane in Sinai. Several groups in Africa have either pledged allegiance to them or have sprouted out of ISIS – the sympathizers in Libya, arguably Nigeria, parts of the Sahel. How does this fit into the broader global campaign against ISIS and jihadi-style groups?

AMBASSADOR MCGURK: Well, one thing, it's not just focused on Iraq and Syria, as I tried to say. So we have to focus on Iraq and Syria because that's one of the main draws and appeal, and we cannot allow these guys to have safe haven. So suffocating the core is critical; but at the same time, in parallel and just as intense and just as determined and just as decisive, we want to focus on the global networks.

The global affiliates – it's more complicated sometimes. A lot of these terrorist groups have already been existing for some time, and just because they put up an ISIL flag doesn't necessarily make it more of a threat than it might have already been. However, when – and we are looking at each affiliate very closely. We have a whole process for this. We're looking at: Are there connections between ISIL core and Raqqa and the global affiliate? Are there foreign fighter flows? Is there messaging coordination? And that is why when we see that and when we see a leader affiliated with ISIL we will not hesitate, obviously, to take action. And you just saw that last week where we targeted the head of ISIL in Libya.

So this is something that is going to continue, but this is a global network. It is spread by modern technology and social networking. It is a challenge – something we have not seen before. And that's why we have to do this. That's why we built a global coalition of 65 members, and we need to coordinate better, share information more, do it faster.

On Monday here at the State Department, we will be bringing in all the ambassadors of the coalition and we will address them in some detail about our plans going forward. We will also be very specific for some additional resource needs we need from them, and we expect that Vice President Biden will come and address those ambassadors on Monday.

MR KIRBY: Arshad.

QUESTION: You began by talking about the 98-kilometer stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border. Why has it been so difficult to close that, given that you have a functioning state to the north with an enormous standing army? What is so difficult about undertaking and then prosecuting that effort?

AMBASSADOR MCGURK: Oh, it's a good question. It's a significant stretch of territory, and within that gap area – we call it the Manbij Gap – ISIL has fortified itself in there. So in that little 98-kilometer by 40-kilometer area, the town of Dabiq is there. Dabiq is their kind of ideological capital. It's where they, in their perverse view of the world, believe Armageddon is going to begin. It's a very fortified ISIL town. Manbij in an area in which they collect foreign fighters and direct them across the battlefield. Jarabulus, al-Rai are areas in which they continue to funnel foreign fighters in.

So this is a heartland for them and they are fortified there. So to find the forces on the ground to do the fighting and to do it in a way in which we know they're going to win is something that we are in mil-to-mil conversations with the Turks on. But more importantly – and this came up in the conversation with President Obama and President Erdogan in Turkey – are efforts that the Turks are going to take on their side of the border. But the Turks have made clear to us they are all in on this effort. They have been, I think, from the moment that we opened the Incirlik Air Base agreement and started flying out of there. And one thing you can look at is that the Turks are flying F-16s and doing bombing runs against ISIL in this Mar'a line area regularly, consistently now. So it's a difficult geography, it's a difficult terrain, and I defer to my military colleagues in terms of exactly how it will go. But we want to get it right. But it's also already started. You just look at what we're doing every single day in terms of airstrikes in this area, and – but most importantly, working with the Turks to coordinate, to make sure that we can get this right.

And that's a conversation from President Obama and President Erdogan; it's a conversation I have had a number of times. I was in Ankara before Antalya last week to see their foreign minister and others. Our vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff I spoke with yesterday is going, is on his way to Turkey. And much of our conversations here are focused on taking care of this last stretch of territory.



QUESTION: One question.

MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. McGurk. About your political – your military aid for the Iraqi Kurds, some people, including – some people and organizations, including the International Crisis Group, have suggested that you condition that military aid on, say, political reform because they are afraid that this political rivalry in the region could escalate into more violence. Do you set any conditions for the military aid you provide for the KRG?

MR MCGURK: It's a good question. I've spent a lot of time with the Kurds over the last year – well before that, but especially over the last year in Erbil and Suly and Dohuk. As with all the political parties at a critical moment in their political process just a few months ago, we are deeply, deeply engaged with all the Kurdish parties. And our message to them is clear that when the Kurds are united, nothing can defeat them. And we saw that in Kobani, and Kobani – as I said, we came to the aid of the defenders of the town of Kobani, but then we also worked, diplomatically, very aggressively with Turkey. And I was in Ankara late one evening with General Allen and Prime Minister Davutoglu about getting resupplies into Kobani, and the Turks, of course, then opened a corridor for the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga to come into Kobani. It was a moment in which the Kurds really united against this threat, and they dealt a decisive blow to ISIL.

We do get concerned when we see the Kurdish parties politically divided, because this war is not over. The Kurds are suffering martyrs every single day, so we constantly encourage them to unite their ranks against this threat. There will be political disagreements – there are time for those – but right now we really encourage the Kurds to be united against this threat.

In terms of military support, we're working closely with the Peshmerga across the board, working closely with all the Kurdish parties – the PUK and the KDP – and we're making sure that they have what they need to prevail.

QUESTION: Just one more question on the Syrian Kurds – just one more. Sir, you – the United States has definitely been supporting the Syrian Kurds a lot, and without the United States support, Kobani could have fallen. But now the Syrian Kurds – when you talk to their leaders, they say we need more actual ammunition, actual weapons, and the United States has said, for example, even the recent airdrop was intended for the Arab opposition, not for the Kurds – Kurdish forces. What is the hesitation here? Why the United States is not openly and actively providing them with weapons while it's willing to provide air cover for them? I just don't understand that quite well.

MR MCGURK: I'm just not going to discuss all the details here of these conversations, but we're going to work with groups that are fighting ISIL and make sure they have what they need to succeed.

QUESTION: Going back, can you tell us anything about the role of U.S. military advisors on the ground? Are they literally just providing advice or have they actually been engaged in any fighting, in any military action, actually handling weapons?

MR MCGURK: Well, for the most part, our military advisors are providing advisory support, training, and assistance. That's across the board, so we have site two – two sites in Anbar province, or in Taji and Baghdad, of course; Besmaya; and across the Kurdish Iraqi region. And we're joined by a number of coalition partners from Spain to the Dutch to the Danes to the Australians, the Brits, and the French. The French have a number of significant assets on the ground that are working very closely with us, particularly in northern Iraq.

So it's primarily training, advice, support. The effort I mentioned in Taqaddum Air Base, for example – it was about getting the Iraqis reorganized, getting them on their feet, helping them facilitate, working with the Iraqi Government in Baghdad to get the forces available to begin to re-push – take the initiative against ISIL in Ramadi.

However, there are times, of course, when we believe it's in our national security interests and the President authorizes for more direct action missions. So you've seen that against Abu Sayyaf, the number one financier of ISIL, in an operation into northern Syria about five, six months ago now. And we collected more information off that site than we have in any Special Forces operation in history. It was what has led now to a number of operations to really just completely uproot ISIL's economic financial networks in Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria, and you're going to see more of that. A lot of that came out of that raid. And of course, when we helped the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga do the rescue operation against the 70 hostages, and of course we lost a brave American in that operation.

So we have people in harm's way risking their life against this barbaric enemy and that's going to continue, but I will say I was in Erbil and met – I met these hostages who were rescued, all of whom were about to be executed the next morning, and it was just an incredible moment. And it just spoke to how important this is and why we need to do every possible – everything we can to prevail.

MR KIRBY: Okay. We're going to just take one more. Said, I'll give you the last question.

QUESTION: Thank you. Sir, I wanted to ask you about Anbar. You said that you are mobilizing indigenous forces. What is the status of mobilizing the indigenous forces in the Anbar region to liberate Ramadi?

MR MCGURK: Well, we set a target, and it was in the Iraqi budget of about 8,000 tribal fighters in Anbar province paid for by the Iraqi Government. We have had full cooperation from Prime Minister Abadi and the government for that effort. We have about – and the numbers fluctuate a little bit – we have about 7,000 in Anbar who are fighting. And we have found that when the tribes mobilize and they're able to coordinate with us, they're extremely successful. But let's remember ISIL didn't just come into Anbar province when Mosul fell. They actually moved into Fallujah and into Ramadi on January 1st, 2014, going on almost two years now. And even before that, all through 2013, they were decimating the tribal structures and the networks, kind of trying to hollow out the societal structures that had existed.

So this is extremely hard work. That's why we have these two sites in Anbar province to help mobilize the local indigenous forces to take back their communities. And most importantly, Prime Minister Abadi's – he has a philosophy of governance consistent with Iraq's constitution; it's embedded, interwoven in their constitution of decentralization and empowering the governors and local leaders to provide for their own affairs.

So you've seen that in Tikrit where the governor of Salah al-Din and the local leaders there have been empowered to help bring people back to their streets, and we've been working very closely with the governor of Anbar province and the local leaders of Anbar province to help ensure that when neighborhoods are taken back – and it's going to be neighborhood by neighborhood, it will be extremely difficult; this is Ramadi we're talking about – that the resources are there, that the police are there to come back to the streets, and the Italians have led an effort to train the Anbari police – training about a thousand of them right now – and that the governor and the local leaders have the resources they need to help bring people back to the streets.

So I think we've had very good cooperation between the local leaders out in Anbar province and the central government facilitated by our folks, but it's very difficult. ISIL is going to put up an extremely hard fight. The three predominantly Sunni capitals in Anbar, Tikrit – Tikrit is no longer ISIL's – under ISIL's control – Mosul, and Ramadi. And ISIL and its predecessor, AQI, have fought for Ramadi for years, and they are not going to give up without a major fight. I mentioned the casualties the Iraqis have already taken to take it back. And this is going to be a very difficult fight.

But we are – and you can get the briefing from Colonel Warren, who gives excellent briefings and real detailed briefings of what we are doing to help enable those forces right now on the ground. So this'll take some time, but I think we have the pieces in place to do it.

MR KIRBY: Thanks very much. Thank you. Thanks, everybody.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: Thank you.

MR MCGURK: Thanks.

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